Your Child's Brain on Primitive Reflexes
This post is a condensed summary of our podcast about primitive reflexes. To listen to the full episode scroll to the bottom of the page or find us on all of the major streaming services.
Hello and welcome, my name is Emily Roper. I am a Neuro-Developmental Delay Therapist and I work with a wide variety of children with developmental delays: ADHD, Autism, Sensory Processing Disorder, Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, etc. I want to highlight a really common thread that I see in all of the kids I work with and that is the presence of retained primitive reflexes.
Now, If you have never heard of primitive reflexes before, then don't worry. Most people haven’t. That is a big reason why I write these blog posts and host a podcast. I am hoping to give families and other professionals easier access to quality information about primitive reflexes, neuro-development, and the explosion of developmental problems that we are seeing in children.
Babies are born with a set of reflexes call primitive or infant reflexes that they keep for a short period of time after birth. These reflexes develop in utero and disappear at different points in time throughout their first year after birth. These reflexes each play an important role helping babies to survive and grow.
During pregnancy, these reflexes help babies by encouraging movement and helping them get into an optimal position for birth. Ideally at the end of pregnancy they will be head down with their arms and legs tucked in nicely.
During labor and birth these reflexes are even more important. Babies actively participate in their own births and make several different rotations and positional changes in order to be born vaginally. Not only do these reflexes help the birth process, but the birth process itself helps strengthens these reflexes and primes the nervous system for life outside the womb.
After birth, babies rely heavily on these reflexes for survival. Human babies are born quite early compared to other mammals. At birth they have very little control over their own body. They rely heavily on these reflexes to help them survive during those early months.
As they grow, they quickly gain more control of their body, and these reflexes begin to disappear. There are a lot of things that can happen during pregnancy, birth and the early infancy period that interrupt this process and prevent the primitive reflexes from developing and inhibiting properly. This sets off a domino effect that can negatively impact the way the rest of the brain and body develop.
In another post I will go into a lot more detail on what can go wrong, but for now let’s look at one common example:
Let’s consider a baby who is exposed to high levels of stress during pregnancy. Stress exposure in pregnancy makes a baby’s nervous system more reactive to stressor. Now let’s say that same baby experiences other early stressors like a traumatic birth. Maybe they don’t tolerate labor well and their heart rate consistently drops, they’re born with the help of forceps or a vacuum, or they are born with low Apgar scores and need to be resuscitated. One of the ways that their brain can react to any of those experiences is to hang on to one or more of their primitive reflexes. In this example, it is very common for babies keep their Moro reflex.
The Moro reflex is a baby’s fight-or-flight response. In normal development, this reflex disappears shortly after birth and gives way to a more mature adult startle response. When this transition doesn’t happen properly, the baby holds on to that immature fight-or-flight response and doesn’t develop a mature reaction to stress. This can cascade into lots of other problems as they get bigger.
It obviously affects the way they regulate stress; it impacts their emotional maturity and frustration tolerance. It can affect the way they process sensory information and how they regulate their attention. You can even see negative effects on other body systems like the digestive and immune systems.
This is just one example of many primitive reflexes that impact development. There are reflexes that affect things like visual tracking, posture and our ability to sit still and focus our attention. As you can imagine, these are very important skills that kids need when they go to school. If your child is struggling in school a big question you should ask is do they have the physical tools they need for success. Can they do things like: hold their body still, use their eyes effectively, focus their attention, and tune out irrelevant stimuli?
If a child has retained primitive reflexes they don't have the tools they need and our focus should be on integrating their reflexes and developing those tools.
Retained primitive reflexes are very common in children with ADHD, Autism, Sensory processing struggles and other social, emotional, behavioral and academic struggles. It is something that I see in a lot of children, and it is the root cause of many of the common symptoms associated with many developmental delays.
Now the good news about primitive reflexes is that they are treatable. Even in older children, teens and adults. We treat primitive reflexes physically. Children go through a series of physical exercises that target their reflexes and other body systems. These movements help integrate reflexes, they facilitate mature communication between the brain and body, and they help "unstick" kids so that their brain takes off and develops the way it was supposed to.
This process is really amazing and can be super effective for kids with developmental delays, but it is not quick. It is VERY slow. This process of integrating reflexes takes at least a year when it happens in normal development and usually longer when you are integrating them in older children.
If you are a parent and have a child that you're concerned about, you can find more information on my website. I have a screening questionnaire that you can fill out and I offer free phone consuls to review the questionnaire and see if this type of therapy would be beneficial to your child.
You can listen to the full podcast episode on primitive reflexes below! If you enjoyed this, then please subscribe to my podcast channel.